The future of the office

The office is in a state of flux. Return-to-office strategies around the world have so far been hit and miss, but cultural and political forces are now also at work. Here's what it could mean for you.

FUTURE OF WORK | 6-MINUTE READ
Who is going back to the office?

Who is going back to the office?

Globally, it's a mixed picture for getting back into the office. According to a report by Digiday 43 of the UK's biggest 50 employers aren't planning a full-time office return, while Spanish politicians are trialling a four-day week to get people back into the office without compromising on improved family life.

40% of Americans would prefer to work from home full-time, but 74% think that their CEO would rather they're physically present in the office. Asia has the highest office occupancy rates in the world, according to Freespace, and Gensler's China Workplace Survey found that 99% of office workers are either in the office full time or working in a hybrid model.

Through a series of occupier surveys, CBRE has identified several global themes influencing the future of the office, including hybrid working, company culture, workplace transformation and flexible space. However you look at it, the office is going to be a very different place to before Covid. Can we maintain the same levels of productivity, relationship-building and knowledge-sharing without a shared physical location?

Let's start by taking a look at the future of the office in the new future of work.

A journey to the infinite office

Discover how and why our best work will be able to happen anywhere inside the metaverse.

Is the future of work back in the office?

Is the future of work back in the office?

As we've already seen, feelings about returning to the office vary across employee/employer dynamics and country. We can look at the future of the office as a spectrum, stretching from fully remote to fully office based. At one end are companies like Meta, Quora and Spotify who are embracing long-term remote working. Others, like Apple and Microsoft, are somewhere in the middle with a hybrid work model, while more traditional companies like JP Morgan Chase and Goldman Sachs are at the opposite end, expecting a full return to the office.

In terms of attitudes towards the workplace, the pandemic has caused a seismic shift. After being forced to work from home during lockdown, people are reluctant to go back to the traditional work-life balance with its set hours and high commuting costs. According to PWC's Remote Work Survey, 55% of employees say that they would prefer to work remotely at least twice a week, and most executives believe remote work is here to stay.

Office design company Morgan Lovell have coined 'Workplace 3.0' as a term for the "office of the future". This is a progression from 'Workplace 1.0' – working at a desk or meeting room – and 'Workplace 2.0' – open plan offices and hot-desking – to a balance between home and office working. The success in getting this balance right will be in flexibility around time as well as the set-up of the workplace itself.

Redefining the office

Redefining the office

The Business Design Centre claims that despite the popularity of hybrid working as we emerge from the pandemic, we are not quite ready to "declare the traditional office extinct." A physical office space is a secure hub for making efficient communication and collaboration happen. It supports personal and professional development, and it's a way to build and promote company culture – to current employees and customers as well as future talent and prospects.1

One of the biggest benefits of a physical workplace is its social value. Feeling part of a community and sharing knowledge is key to producing great work. While the pandemic proved that we can communicate with coworkers all around the world through video conferencing, this can't exactly replicate being physically present in the same place. From small talk while getting a coffee to group brainstorms and sensitive conversations with your manager, talking face-to-face allows us to convey more than words through our body language and emotions. This, argues Morgan Lovell, is what "contributes to a gold standard of collaboration", building intellectual and cultural capital for a business.2

If the future of the office is focused on the value of human interaction, what does this mean for office design? Speaking to McKinsey, Diane Hoskins, co-CEO of Gensler, a global design and architecture firm, provides insight into the acceleration of a people-centred approach to workspace design. During the pandemic, office design had to address space, safety and hygiene – post-pandemic it's all about optimising performance and innovation through flexibility and collaboration.

What will office space look like in the future?

What will office space look like in the future?

Let's explore some of the trends that are reshaping the office in a post-pandemic world.

Local hubs

Commute time and location costs are long-term concerns for maintaining a good work-life balance for employees, while making sure the cost of leasing or owning office space is sustainable. Companies may decide to break away from a single urban HQ into regional outposts – known as the hub-and-spoke model.

Scattering offices across urban and suburban locations can be a win-win. It allows for collaboration and preserves a sense of company community. And it creates opportunities for widening the talent pool. It also means employees have more options for traveling into the office, as suburban business parks typically offer free parking, and office costs may be lower than city central locations where space is at a premium.

Augmented reality (the Metaverse)

Technology has advanced super-fast during the pandemic in response to global lockdowns, so it's no surprise that it will play a major part in the future of the office. Mixed reality workspaces are a fusion of the digital and physical worlds. Andrew Bosworth, head of virtual reality and augmented reality at Meta Reality Labs, says Meta has been creating a new computing platform that allows people to "switch between real and virtual worlds" using a combination of augmented and virtual reality.3

The idea of the Metaverse is to create an environment that's infinitely flexible. Meta calls this an "embodied internet" – "an internet you can step inside". Imagine creating realistic 3D avatars that emulate our body language when we speak. Setting up the ideal workstation with a digital keyboard and multiple virtual screens layered onto our physical environment. Optimising VR and AR spaces for specific tasks, depending on what we need. The Metaverse could offer endless opportunities for collaboration and creativity.

Co-working spaces

If hybrid working means people can work from home when they need a quieter environment to get their heads down and focus, then the office is the place for interaction. Instead of isolating cubicles or separate desks, casual seating enables in-person conversations, huddle rooms allow small groups to work collaboratively and bigger conference rooms help project teams come together. Remote team members can be dialled in by videoconferencing, while in-office staff will be able to physically work cooperatively.

More space

Social distancing meant businesses had to maximise every square meter of their offices in order to keep employees safe without compromising on productivity. As social distancing is phased out and hybrid working takes precedence, companies will likely need less desk space, but this doesn't necessarily mean downsizing. In fact, repurposing floorspace means more space is likely needed to open up areas for collaboration and socialising – not to mention visual representation of company culture and values.

Smarter buildings

Much like contactless payments, offices may need to evolve to reduce common touchpoints, even after the pandemic. Using smartphone apps to access things like lockers and printers, rather than physically touching shared buttons protects employee health and safety without affecting efficiency. Zaha Hadid Architects' HQ for the Bee'ah environmental and waste management company uses a series of "contactless pathways", including motion sensors and facial recognition to open doors and call lifts, so employees don't have to touch the building.4

Smart building management technology can also have positive benefits for comfort and for the environment – like, heating and lighting systems that respond to weather and occupancy. Big data is key to driving energy efficiency, minimising the carbon footprint of a building, and streamlining costs through smart tech, as well as creating the best working conditions.

Social and creative spaces

Space psychology is the link between an environment and how we feel, act and think. To spark creativity, encourage social interaction or boost productivity, workspace design has to stimulate the appropriate emotions. Soft furnishings invite relaxation, private pods inspire quiet sharing moments, and larger open-plan areas can use interesting design features to bring people together with positive energy.

Companies are also looking to spark innovation through environments that cultivate thinking outside the box. LEGO's Denmark HQ , for example, features giant Lego models, bright colours and creative work 'neighbourhoods',5 whilst Viacom in New York commissioned an artist to paint a scrolling mural through the hallways.6

Focus on well-being

While home working during the pandemic gave many people more time to spend on exercising and hobbies, boundary blur between work and home put some at risk of burnout. The two sides of the wellbeing coin have brought supporting the mental and physical health of employees to the top of the business agenda. This has driven an increase in corporate wellness programmes – the business benefits of which include increased productivity, employee retention and recruitment.

A workplace wellness programme could include discounted gym memberships, in-office meditation sessions, regular social events, standing desks and healthy snacks. Even things as simple as natural light can make employees feel more comfortable in the office, and so happier, healthier and more productive.

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1 "Five reasons why your physical office space is as important as ever", Business Design Centre, 2020
2 "Workplace 3.0: The office of the future", Morgan Lovell
3 "COVID-19: Is this what the office of the future will look like?", World Economic Forum, 2020
4 "BEEAH HQ", Zaha Hadid Architects
5 "The LEGO Group opens new campus in Billund, Denmark", Lego, 2019
6 "These seven innovative offices were designed to spark creativity", Artsy, 2019
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